Although Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa are much older than Galle, they are effectively abandoned cities – the modern towns are divorced from the ancient ruins. In contrast, both old and new Galle have remained vibrant.
Historians believe Galle may have been the city of Tarshish – where King Solomon obtained gems and spices – but it became prominent only with the arrival of the Europeans. In 1505 a Portuguese fleet bound for the Maldives was blown off course and took shelter in the harbour. Apparently, on hearing a cock (galo in Portuguese) crowing, they gave the town its name. Another slightly less dubious story is that the name is derived from the Sinhala word gala (rock).
In 1589, during one of their periodic squabbles with the kingdom of Kandy, the Portuguese built a small fort, which they named Santa Cruz. Later they extended it with a series of bastions and walls, but the Dutch, who took Galle in 1640, destroyed most traces of the Portuguese presence.
After the construction of the Fort in the 17th century Galle was the main port for Sri Lanka for more than 200 years, and was an important stop for boats and ships travelling between Europe and Asia. However, by the time Galle passed into British hands in 1796, commercial interest was turning to Colombo. The construction of breakwaters in Colombo’s harbour in the late 19th century sealed Galle’s status as a secondary harbour, though it still handles some shipping and yachts.
For an interesting take on local history, buy a copy of Galle: As Quiet As Asleep by Norah Roberts, Galle’s long-time librarian.